Obama and Xi Jinping

U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping hold a press conference in Beijing Nov. 12. (Photo: Feng Li/Getty Images)

The U.S. and China — Earth's two largest economies and top two emitters of greenhouse gases — just revealed a historic, game-changing agreement to fight climate change. In a surprise announcement Wednesday morning, President Obama and President Xi Jinping committed to dramatic reductions in their greenhouse gas emissions that could loosen decades of gridlock in global climate talks.

On the final day of Obama's three-day visit to China, he and Xi made the following pledges:

  • The U.S. will cut its carbon emissions by 26 to 28 percent from 2005 levels before the year 2025. That will double the current pace of U.S. emissions cuts, from 1.2 percent annually during the 2005-2020 period to between 2.3 and 2.8 percent annually during 2020-2025.
  • China will peak its carbon emissions by 2030, marking the first time the No. 1 carbon-emitting country has agreed to set a date for such a target. China will also increase the non-fossil fuel portion of its total energy usage to 20 percent by the same year.
This is a big deal. Not only does it herald the largest-ever emissions cuts from the planet's top two emitters of carbon dioxide — which alone could put a dent in climate change — but it also opens the door to far more possibilities at next year's United Nations climate talks in Paris. Many countries have been reluctant to limit their own CO2 output without stronger commitments from the U.S. and China, but Obama and Xi say their newly revealed agreement should put such arguments to rest.

"As the world's two largest economies, energy consumers and emitters of greenhouse gases, we have a special responsibility to lead the global effort against climate change," Obama said Wednesday. "We hope to encourage all major economies to be ambitious — all countries, developing and developed — to work across some of the old divides, so we can conclude a strong global climate agreement next year."

U.S. and Chinese leaders have long pointed to each other to justify their own inaction on climate change, but today's announcement could transform that dynamic in one fell swoop, says Bob Perciasepe, president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. "For too long it's been too easy for both the U.S. and China to hide behind one another," Perciasepe says in a statement. "People on both sides pointed to weak action abroad to delay action at home. This announcement hopefully puts those excuses behind us. We'll only avert the worst risks of climate change by acting together."

coal plant in China

About 70 percent of China's electricity still comes from coal, but that's poised to change. (Photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images)

The ultimate goal for the U.S., according to the White House, is emissions cuts "on the order of 80 percent by 2050." Much of that will be based on existing efforts to rein in CO2, including energy-efficiency measures, vehicle fuel-economy rules, and the EPA's plan to limit carbon emissions from power plants. But the deal with China also features a package of new joint initiatives, including:

  • More investment in the U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center (CERC), which was created in 2009 by Obama and Xi's predeccesor, Hu Jintao. The deal extends CERC's mandate for five more years, renew funding for three existing research tracks (building efficiency, clean vehicles and advanced coal technology) and launch a new track on the interaction of energy and water.
  • Creating a major carbon capture and storage project in China that "supports a long-term, detailed assessment of full-scale sequestration in a suitable, secure underground geologic reservoir." The U.S. and China will match funding for the project, and seek additional outside funding. 
  • Pushing for cuts in the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a potent greenhouse gas used in refrigerants. The deal will boost cooperation on phasing out HFCs, including efforts to promote HFC alternatives and shift government procurement toward climate-friendly refrigerants.
  • Launching a new initiative to help cities in both countries share tips on using policy and technology to encourage low-carbon economic growth. This will kick off with a bilateral "Climate-Smart/Low-Carbon Cities Summit" to feature best practices and set new goals.
  • Promoting trade in "green goods," including low-carbon infrastructure and energy-efficiency technologies. U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz will lead a three-day business development mission in China next April.
  • More U.S. help with China's efficiency and clean-energy goals, such as expanded cooperation on smart grid development and a U.S.-Chinese commercial agreement on a "first-of-its-kind" 380-megawatt concentrating solar power plant in China.
Both countries' commitments are big news, but China's are especially momentous given that country's huge population and heavy reliance on coal for electricity. The agreement will require China to add 800 to 1,000 gigawatts of zero-emissions electricity generation by 2030, according to the White House, including both renewable and nuclear energy. That's more than all of China's current coal-fired power plants can generate, and it's close to the entire U.S. capacity for electricity generation.

"Today's announcement is the political breakthrough we've been waiting for," says Timothy E. Wirth, vice chair of the United Nations Foundation and former U.S. State Department official under President Bill Clinton. "If the two biggest players on climate are able to get together, from two very different perspectives, the rest of the world can see that it's possible to make real progress."

For more details, see the countries' joint statement about their agreement.

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Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.